Why We Go by Twos by Linda Stern. Hainesport, N.J.: Barefoot Muse Press, 2015. ISBN 9781507867976 (paper).
Reviewed by Joyce Wilson
In her collection of poems, Why We Go by Twos, Linda Stern investigates cultural and literary forms—narrative, dialogue, symbol, ritual—asking what they illuminate about the way we portray our daily lives. What interests Stern is opening up the form of the poem and looking into the space provided there. How does that space provide for its subject? And how does it sustain us?
The narrative form arrives with expectations about plot and closure, which Stern puts to use as she begins the poem (of the book title) with a bedtime conversation. After the question, “Why two animals? you ask. Why only two?” comes the dependable response:
That’s the least, I say, the least that we
can be and still have human things—
and two can someday make a family.
Although the scene creates the protective atmosphere of domestic enclosure, the stanzas are written in tercets, which warns of tragedy (after Dante). Then the middle stanzas look beyond into the fall of night where an “irrational hand” regulates movements of the heavens and unsettling dreams. The final stanzas look outside further still:
But standing by your bed, I turn to stare,
as shadows fill the corners of your room,
and think with what unutterable despair
they watched the ship recede atop the waves,
clutching their infants in the rising flood,
knowing they were not chosen to be saved.
(“Why We Go by Twos,” 7)
This harrowing vision marks a reversal in subject and tone, from shelter to extreme vulnerability. Whether the reader sees, in the shadows or those left behind, families not chosen by Noah to board his Ark in Biblical times, or refugees from Syria waiting on the banks of the Mediterranean for passage to a new life in Greece or Europe in contemporary times, the prospect is a frightening one. It encompasses the abandonment and moral rejection that the parent would withhold from the bedtime story. But as an ending to a poem, the stanzas delineate a universal fear that lurks at the root of parental love.
“The Color of the Sea” is also written in tercets, with a lesser sense of urgency. Instead, in the three lines, the forms of argument are evoked, even if they never fully develop. As premise, counterpremise, and synthesis are hinted at, the poem follows a dialogue between lovers, one in first person, the other in second. Images arise as each voice endeavors to describe the blue of the sea (“Homer called it wine dark”), its brightness (“the way the sunlight feels”), other stripes of color in it (“like lemon-lime ribbons”), its surface (“the heart’s looking glass”). The couple is walking along a promenade at Jaffa, and they compare this sea, the Mediterranean, to the Atlantic Ocean. Memories of childhood follow as they make their way to the cafe. As the light of the afternoon fades, so does the color on the water, and the present experience diminishes behind rising recollections of the past. “What after all is color . . . / against the subtle stain of memory?” With this question, the reader understands that the dialogue is not so much about place and memory but the passage of time.
In an effort to dissect the appeal of symbols, Stern turns to athletics. Nothing joins humans closer together than a sporting event. Mandela knew this in 1995 when he held the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, wagering that a win would cement unity over the most stark cultural differences caused by apartheid. In her investigation of the symbolic and the way it works, Stern separates the elements of detail about Mandela on the field.
A man walks into a stadium and puts on a cap and jersey
and this is both actual and symbolic.
(“Mandela and the Boks in 1995,” 10)
In the actual game, winning becomes the symbol of unity. (Bok is short for springbok, the native antelope, and the name of the South African Rugby team). In comparison, the wedding ring is a symbol of the unending circle of marriage that can be worn. The drawings in the privacy of caves at Lascaux preserve visual symbols of a civilization’s origins. The importance of the rugby game in South Africa remains floating in our private consciousness, to be brought to the surface by our public acknowledgement of its political importance from time to time.
Stern recasts a son’s maturity as a moment so natural that it might be overlooked in the chaos of our busy lives. As the mother and father are giving their son a swimming lesson, we are aware of their delight in the process of his coming of age.
We watch as you grow, you strain,
every movement aimed
at the man you want to be.
We argue, plead, cajole, tease,
longing to keep you with us,
a boy, close, on the quiet sandy shore,
learning what you need to know,
for just one more day.
(“Swimming Mitzvah,” 11-12)
Gratifying every need in their relationship, the parents work to keep ahead of their son as he gobbles up the experiences they place in front of him. As they watch him master his swimming strokes, they cannot deny that soon he will surpass them.
Rituals can cease to stimulate if they do not engage. Yet with a look across cultures, Stern suggests novelties in practice that might stimulate any reader. With a series of poems set in India, Stern creates a dramatic field where a variety of devotional narratives unfold. The poem in many parts dramatizes a young woman’s devotion to the banana tree, or bush, in which the god Vishnu resides. The banana palm in its sacred state is vulnerable to the threat of the old cat in the garden. Yet it is ever present in the kitchen of the house. Its leaves can be used to nourish in soup, or it can be decorated with a garland of “cabbages, lotuses, and peas, / marigolds, mums and myrh,” each a form of praise (“The Banana Palm Poems from India,” 29). The narrator describes being so taken with the banana palm that she wants to marry it and go away with it. She wants to guard it against mistreatment. She is pleased to see that it is well received by the neighbors. Nothing is too good for it, except for its susceptibility to vanity:
One banana palm
wears orange skirts.
I am not happy with that,
I love her.
(“The Banana Palm Poems from India,” 30)
Perceiving this weakness, the narrator plans to dress her plant in a new sari and bracelet, with hope that these distractions will keep it from going away with a potential rival, a parrot, referred to as that “fly-by-night” (31) The sequence emphasizes elements that are fluid in identity and dramatic context. The nourishing fruit, the becoming companion, the unpredictable lover occur in overlapping descriptions that sometimes raise questions about where the natural ends and the divine begins. In the variety of these manifestations, we see a broad array of scenes where the divine has a prominent role to play in the theater of daily life.
In exploring the many facets of experience through a variety of forms, Stern exercises a kind of devotion through her poetry. She shows how each perspective illuminates its subject and amplifies our view of the bounty of this world, bounty that can be put to use. She is committed to writing poetry that will lead us to the interplay between wisdom and delight.
Copyright © Joyce Wilson 2020.